ATLANTA, Ga. – Those expecting to see a more serious, considered Portland Timbers squad on Friday, on the field of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, received an pleasant surprise, although for most in attendance – those behind the sign boards at Atlanta United FC’s home stadium – there was no point of comparison. For the national throngs who’ve descended on The ATL for Saturday’s MLS Cup (5pm PT, FOX), this was their first Timbers practice of the season. Whether the group was looser or tighter than usual, few could tell.
Those who could, though, saw a team that was little changed from the group which, relaxed with confidence, has successfully navigated the postseason. Were it not for this venue’s expansive turf and opulent features, Portland’s session would have been indistinguishable from those they held ahead of FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders FC, and Sporting Kansas City – the playoff run that got the 2015 champions to this point. The gargantuan, 360-degree video board hovering halo-esque above their session may have been different, but as evident in their early break in play – when laughter over a teammate’s misstep forced a pause in a rondo – the mood was straight from Portland.
What was different, though, were the others on the sidelines – the guests at training that went beyond the assembled media. Among them was Mustafa Abed and his mother, who had been guests of the team in Portland while Mustafa was receiving treatment related to the left leg he lost when he was two. The Chapman family was in Atlanta, too, enjoying access behind the scenes after the recent passing of their youngest daughter, Maryn. Atticus Lane-Dupre, whose Green Machine team defeated the Timbers as part of a Make-A-Wish fulfillment five years ago, was also at the training session, while Derrick Tellez – five years old, last year, when he was signed to a one-day, Make-A-Wish contract – will also be on hand to when the team returns to Portland International Airport.
The Timbers squad, themselves, have been traveling in their entirety this postseason, expanding their group beyond the regular season’s normal travel squads, but when a team makes a run this deep into the playoffs, it becomes a moment for the entire organization to enjoy. From training staffs to soccer operations, finance, human resources and facilities employees, reaching a Cup final is seen as the culmination of a shared effort, even if the most important of those efforts is on the field.
“As I said all along, we always travel with an army …,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, a play on words alluding not only to the team’s supporters, the Timbers Army, but the strength he sees in the organization’s depth. “The whole group, together, is very strong, and we have to stick together.”
The Timbers club experienced a similar reward two months ago, when Providence Park was the site of the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League Championship Game. That day, another major part of the organization stole the show, with stands full of Rose City Riveters giving the young league its best single-game atmosphere to date. Thorns FC failed to overcome their visitors, the North Carolina Courage, that day on the field, but the atmosphere at the team’s home stadium was a showcase for Portland soccer’s culture.
The same was the case this morning, as a chartered plane full of Timbers Army members accompanied other fans, staff and family members to Atlanta. It’s the final contingent from Portland that will be arriving en masse, this week, and also one of the most important. Around 1,700 Portland Timbers fans will be in attendance at MLS Cup on Saturday, and although Timbers owner Merritt Paulson suggested, on Friday, that the league revisit policies that kept that allotment from being larger, the contingent marks the largest travel allocation MLS has ever had for one of its finals.
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In that way, Saturday’s game will be about more than the competition on the field, even though that result, and the potential second star above the Timbers’ crest, will still be most important. For Portland, MLS Cup has become a chance to celebrate an entire organization, one that’s had three teams in postseasons, hosted and attended separate league finals, and has seen major updates completed or begin on both its training and gameday facilities. MLS Cup week becomes a chance to, from Savarese to Abed, celebrate the new people who’ve become part of the organization as well as, in the fertile hotbed of Atlanta, see what organizations like Portland’s and others helped fertilize in the country’s soccer landscape.
Not much has changed within the Timbers’ team over the last seven weeks. That much was evident Friday, on the field. But with hindsight, it’s easy to see the process the club’s made throughout 2018 as seeding the joy media and fans in that rondo.
No matter Saturday’s result, the Timbers family, from staff to fans, have gotten their chance to celebrate each other, with Atlanta serving as the backdrop.